Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Building the Nimble Team - Retaining Talent

Over the years, we noticed a pattern where really talented, early career hires achieved success in the first 1 to 3 years, and then failed to thrive. It happened probably with less than 10% of hires in that category, but those staff members represented new skills, fresh perspective, and diversity of thinking.   It was not what we wanted to see; we want to retain new hires.  We have been thinking about this challenge and working to improve.

We generally notice the issue with the first technical or project transition. The individual will not successfully navigate to the next project or the next technical knowledge base. This is critical, because a technical career will require the ability to change directions many times over the life of the career. I noticed this blog presenting more of the perspective of the person who didn't succeed. There are perspectives specific to the Microsoft situation, but there are some general pieces I'd like to note.

The author, Ellen Chisa, is very frank about her experience.  She describes that she "put a lot of pressure" on herself to do well. She wanted to be excellent. The problem I see, from my very ancient perspective, is that this excellence demand totally existed in her own head. She didn't take in any information from other people about what excellent was, or even if excellence was something that management wanted to bestow on other people. A big red flag statement to me: "It's strange to feel like you're failing even when you're promoted." So the organization values you, gives you a promotion, but you cannot take in and absorb that success.

Note that she describes a "plummet" that starts when "it was time to move on to something else." She had to learn new things but "For some reason, that didn't happen."  This is the situation we've encountered as managers in our own organization.   As leaders, we need to learn to recognize it early and help people make transitions.

There are actions we should recognize.  A person who expresses fear that they are not succeeding, and does so periodically, even though the supervisor feels that the person is successful and the team respects the person's contributions. A person who becomes emotionally undone at their first failure should be a red-flag. A person who has been successful in their job, but with a change - a technology upgrade, a new project - is suddenly having problems. A person who has trouble starting on a new task. There are different types of initiative. You may see someone who can demonstrate initiative and self-start with something that they are familiar with, but become totally frozen when it is something new.

If you observe those changes, there are definite things we can do.  For one, we can emphasize values along with success and recognize those values in failure.  For example, one value is learning.  We can celebrate what we learned from failed projects.  Thomas Edison once said "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If we want to encourage staff members to experiment and learn, leaders need to identify what we learned. Discovering what path not to take is very important to long term success. When an employee starts expressing concerns about failing, start emphasizing conversations about what has been learned so far in the effort and how the organization will benefit from that learning.

When an employee expresses the "feeling of failing" even when the employee is meeting all standards of success, we have more personal discussions.  I've found it useful to discuss the unique contributions the individual made to the organization, and how those contributions link to bigger goals and initiatives. This isn't one conversation, in my experience, but a way of working with that individual over time.  It helps to thank the employee for his or her contribution in very specific messages.

The book Leading Geeks has other suggestions. Author Paul Glen describes characteristics of information technology work.  He suggests that failure is normal, ambiguity rules, and figuring out what to do can be harder than doing it.  Those early in their career can struggle with these ideas.  After spending time in the classroom, I have some sense of why.  In class, students are often given a defined project to complete in 15 weeks.  If they follow the defined path, they will complete the project successfully, some with more success than others.  Then they come to work and we cannot tell them where to start or what done looks like on many projects.  We have to discover the path and conclusion in a way that we do not in a classroom setting.  There has to be some comfort in just diving in, and finding out two weeks later that there was a better starting point.  If we find a staff member showing signs of inability to start, it helps to pull up a chair and dive in together.

Leaders building nimble organizations need to identify people having these difficulties as early as possible so everything can be done to help and retain that employee.  I think important responses are to talk about all values, including learning and contribution, not just the value of completion success. Also, monitor inexperienced employees as they go through their first transition, whether it is a new technology, a major upgrade, a new project, or a new team assignment.  Talk about their responses to change.  When an employee is demonstrating what looks like a lack of initiative, pull up a chair and question details while getting hands on the keyboard or some similar engaged activity.  Have sincere conversations about contributions and values.  I've found these actions to help.  Please share any ideas you have.